Picking Sondheim over swabs

Bernadette Peters' skills lie in hygiene — or so an aptitude test indicated when she was 16.

What could she have done with that? she mused.

Become a nurse? A dental hygienist, perhaps?

But theater lovers everywhere owe Peters' mother a debt of gratitude for noticing her daughter's gift for entertaining and encouraging her to enter show business.

"I think it was meant to be," the New York City-based performer said. "I used to sing and hum around the house too much to be anything else. I love music."

Peters will perform at the 2,000-seat Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at 8 p.m. Friday. Her inaugural performance will be accompanied by an ensemble comprising a piano, drums, bass and more.

Terry Dwyer, president of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, considers himself "fortunate" because he watched Peters portray the witch in Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" — a musical from which he hopes to hear at least one song live.

"We can thank the calendar stars that aligned beautifully to make this possible," he quipped. "How lucky for us to have Bernadette Peters open our cabaret season?"

The venue is also poised to host notables including Pattie LuPone, Maureen McGovern, Marilyn Maye, Clint Holmes, Peter Gallagher and Jimmy Webb as part of its 2013-14 series.

Dwyer, who has followed Peters' creative trajectory and is awaiting the upcoming event with bated breath, has found that ticket sales are booming.

"First of all, she's genuine," he said. "She has that ability to capture her audiences and take them with her, whether it's a full performance or a night of songs.... She has that magic ability to captivate and hold the stage. As we've heard it said, she has it all. Bernadette Peters has talent, class, charisma and star power."

The singer, whose tour begins in Costa Mesa and leads to Northridge, Seattle and Oregon, picks up on obvious differences between Broadway acts and shows, like the one at Segerstrom.

"On Broadway, you're playing a character," she said. "There's a fourth wall — you don't look at the audience."

By contrast, she joins the viewers while in concert.

"We are all in the four walls together to have this lovely musical experience," Peters said.

In Orange County, her set list will include favorites by Sondheim as well as the musical theater writing team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.

Peters, who has recorded albums including "Bernadette Peters Loves Rodgers & Hammerstein" and "Sondheim Etc. Etc.: Bernadette Peters Live at Carnegie Hall," is drawn to the writing done by these acclaimed artists. Hammerstein was Sondheim's mentor, inculcating in him the importance of writing about things he was familiar with, she explained.

"Steve either gives me something to say or sentiments that I like to hear," Peters remarked, citing "Children Will Listen," "No One Is Alone" and "With So Little To Be Sure Of" as examples. "His songs open up your mind to his point of view, and it's just delightful."

Peters debuted at age 9 in the musical comedy "This Is Goggle." In the years since, she has acted in "Annie Get Your Gun," "Gypsy," "Song and Dance" and "On the Town," picking up Tony, Grammy, Emmy and Drama Desk awards along the way. She values the "privilege of doing the work," though, versus the myriad nominations and recognition.

Peters, whose career has inspired many a budding actor, counts Margaret Leighton, Dame Eileen Atkins and Mary Martin as idols.

By way of advice, the woman who has also enjoyed success on the big screen in such films as "Silent Movie," "The Jerk" and "Pennies from Heaven," says, "Never copy anyone. Get down to how things come out of you, authentically and purely."

Peters' otherwise gentle voice and easy laughter grow impassioned when discussing her pets — the reason she tries not to stay on tour for long durations.

Stella, a 16-year-old pitbull, earned herself a children's book, "Stella Is a Star," which Peters penned to raise money for Broadway Barks!, an annual dog and cat adoption event founded to help shelter animals throughout the New York City area.

Charlie is 1 1/2 — no one "knows what he is," she chortled — and yet to earn literary fame. He joined Peters' family after the death of her "beloved" Kramer, a 16-year-old "Heinz 57 variety."

"I like to go out and come back home, and then go again," she said. "I don't like to be away from them."

If You Go

What: Bernadette Peters

Where: Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Cost: Start at $49

Information: http://www.SCFTA.org or (714) 556-2787

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